Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Snow, mud, ice houses and the Vancouver Winter Olympics

There's much talk in Vancouver these days about the weather. Actually, people in the Pacific Northwest are almost always talking about the weather, which is highly variable, but with the hordes of visitors and media pouring into the city for the winter Olympics, the chatter is louder than ever. It's somewhat amusing when you think about it - the Canadian city with the mildest winter climate was the one selected to hold the world's biggest outdoor winter sports competition. Next they'll try to bring the summer Olympics to Iqaluit.

I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, learned to ride a snowboard there, at one time harboured dreams of owning a place in Pemberton. The weather they're getting in Vancouver right now is nothing particularly out of the ordinary - lots of precipitation in the form of snow at altitude and rain down below, with mild temperatures in the city.

The games are coming off very well so far, the competitors seem happy, the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, and the opening ceremony (especially the giant orcas swimming across the stadium floor) was well worth watching. But what's painful to watch is the sight of the organizers struggling heroically to get the outdoor events going "in spite of the weather" and the apologies and excuses being offered. Exactly what kind of weather did they expect? Why did they make things so hard for themselves?

Take for example the decision to stage the freestyle skiing competition at Cypress Mountain. Cypress is the classic low elevation Coast mountain: it can have a tonne of snow dumped on it one week and be brown and green the next. The organizers no doubt had their reasons for wanting to stage the freestyle skiing there in spite of the very real possibility of there being no snow. Their underlying logic was no doubt that in the worst case scenario, technology allows you to make enough snow to ski on even if there's not a flake on the mountain. You see it often in Europe at World Cup ski events: racers hurtling down a white course on an otherwise brown mountainside, spectators wearing light jackets.

Nonetheless, the site at Cypress is inherently flawed for freestyle. Low-lying clouds, fog, mist and precipitation regularly make visibility poor - not a good risk to take when you're on a tight schedule. And rain - which lower Cypress is bound to get in any two week span in winter - is much faster at dissolving snow than mild temperatures. Another problem is the crowds: yes, you can make a skiing surface for the competitors, but the spectators may be left wallowing like pigs in a mud pit. The media's reporting today that organizers may have to cancel some spectators tickets at Cypress for this very reason.

Another puzzling problem they had at Cypress was that the snow ramps the competitors jump off kept melting in the days before the games opened. The organizers were scrambling to find a way to overcome this. They finally found one - plastic drainage pipes packed with dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) embedded in the ramps seem to be working. Carbon dioxide-stuffed plastic tubes seem a poor symbol for a games which says it hopes to be more environmentally friendly than those that preceded it (it's all relative, but you'd have to bribe me with gold medal game hockey tickets before I'd say these games are more environmentally benign than either of the Lake Placid games).

The poor individual responsible for constructing these ski ramps is reported to have said he wished he'd studied physics. Actually, he should have studied environmental history. In the days before electricity, rural people regularly stored winter ice well into the height of summer in ice houses, which were often simple wooden structures built above ground. How did they keep their ice from melting? After cutting the blocks from lakes, the individual blocks were then rolled in sawdust to insulate them. A ski ramp constructed out of sawdust-packed ice blocks and covered with plastic sheeting when not in use to keep the rain off should have been fine. Simple, old technologies that have been refined over generations of trial and error are often the best ones.

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